The Union of BC Municipalities Convention: a potpourri of policy

October 2nd, 2011 · Keith Reynolds   www.policynote.ca

For people who follow local policy issues the annual meeting of the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) is always chock-a-block with material. Last week’s meeting in Vancouver, which saw hundreds of mayors and councilors along with most of the Cabinet, much of the BC opposition and dozens of groups selling both items and ideas, was no exception.

The following are just a few of the issues that hit the convention floor.

The RCMP and public private partnerships

There was a lot of coverage in the media about the breakdown in negotiations over a new RCMP contract between British Columbia and the federal government. A side bar issue that got no coverage dealt with the new RCMP Division Headquarters in Surrey.

Solicitor General Shirley Bond complained to a UBCM panel about the province’s inability to control rising RCMP costs. The example she gave was the RCMP’s new Division E headquarters that saw costs balloon from $300 million to $1 billion.

However, it turns out that the new headquarters is a federal public private partnerships and that so far the province’s privatization agency, Partnerships BC, has billed $2.5 million in consulting fees on the project. Remember when the government argued that P3s offered fixed costs and price stability?

The Municipal Auditor General

Mayors and councilors were not happy about the province’s decision to impose a Municipal Auditor General on them. Councilors argued from the convention floor that they were already forbidden by law to run a deficit and had many of their major projects subject to referendum.

However, the province backed down on most of the issues promising to pay for the new office (but not for the cost of audits) as well as swearing that new MAG would not have the power to second guess local policies, including tax policy.

The big issue that still remains is governance. The UBCM wants the same model the province enjoys in its relationship with its own AGM. That would mean an MAG would report to an accounting board made up of local government representatives. No dice Communities Minister Ida Chong told the convention. Apparently local governments will make up only a minority of the board. The business community has been promised its own chair at the table.

The business community (primarily the Canadian Federation of Independent Business) is on a full-court press to see business property taxes cut with the cost being shifted to homeowners. Of course business, unlike homeowners, can write off their property taxes against federal and provincial taxes.

Government downloading and rural areas

Every UBCM convention holds individual forums for different sized communities. My favorite is always the Electoral Area Directors’ forum made up of mainly people representing spread out rural areas. While diplomacy is the order of the day when big communities talk to the provincial government, with Area Directors you get a lot more down-to-earth candor.

Over the years Area directors have had a continuing complaint about downloading of costs. This year the complaint was over diking policy. As a Central Kootenay Director told the provincial officials at the forum, “One of the reasons you are downloading is that you lack resources. If you can’t handle it, we sure can’t.” The chair of the presentation on diking sent the provincial officials away with this message:

We don’t have the expertise, equipment or money. Flood mitigation needs more funding. Send the message back.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)

Over the years residents, particularly in urban areas, have become used to a growing level of recycling. Blue boxes take away our newspapers, cans and plastics. For many of us there will soon be recycling of kitchen scraps.

It turns out there is some risk of things going the other direction. The Area Directors heard a presentation on Extended Producer Responsibility. Under this program producers and consumers or products will have responsibility for them. It sounds attractive but what will it actually mean?

A Director from the Sunshine Coast told the panel they were planning to extend their blue box program and asked for advice considering the EPR policy. An industry spokesman advised the Director that they couldn’t give practical advice but that it would be “prudent to wait.”  An industry spokesman reported that some governments were putting a pause on such projects. “Remain nimble” she advised.

It turns out we may all have to be more nimble if we have to start taking our newspapers to depots rather than having them picked up in blue boxes.

Wages for public employees

It appears Christy Clark’s government is determined to make public employees pay for the government’s ineptitude on the HST. In a panel on the economy Finance Minister Kevin Falcon told the audience:

With respect to the wage mandate for the whole public service at net zero for two years – that tough mandate is likely to continue.

Public sector wages have already fallen due to inflation and the two year wage freeze. The Finance Minister appears determined to push them down further. Meanwhile, at least for now, wages in the private sector are going up.

Ferries

At the forum on the economy an Island Trust Trustee told the panel of Ministers:

Ferry fares are killing our communities. We are losing jobs because of the ferry fares.  If government isn’t willing to put money into ferry infrastructure we are going to continue to lose jobs.

Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrum said they were cutting 400 sailings but that it would not likely affect fares. Finance Minister Falcon suggested fares really didn’t make much difference because when they cut fares temporarily during the recession, ridership didn’t go up. The Island Trustee disagreed.

Open government

I went to one of the 7:30 am “clinics” on Thursday morning on “open government.” I had hoped it might deal with the government’s poor record on access to information but instead it dealt with the governments new web sites.

It wasn’t a total loss though. The government’s data website that now contains more than 2,400 data sets looks pretty interesting. And the open information site that publishes the government’s FOI releases is certainly worth reading on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Too bad their policy of releasing the information only 72 hours after it goes to the FOI requestor will probably discourage media from using FOI.

Workshop on market housing

Thursday afternoon there was a workshop on market housing that was much more interesting than last year’s all day workshop. Last year was mainly taken up by how little the province could or would do. This year instead focused on how much was actually being done in communities like Vernon, Langford and Surrey.

There were dozens of other policy issues addressed in the week long convention. Paul Willcocks has an interesting column on the debate about smart meters here. It is remarkable just how much information flows in a meeting like this.

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